By Amy Sturges/reporter

Walking around the neighborhood he grew up in, Dallas artist Giovanni Valderas sees much more than dilapidated houses and construction sites in Oak Cliff.

He sees developers who are slowly changing the landscape of his neighborhood. They are buying property, razing older buildings and replacing them with new ones, he said. It’s gentrification.

“Homes that used to be affordable for many families have disappeared to make way for luxurious high-rises and expensive apartment complexes,’’ Valderas told students in a NE Campus class Feb. 5. “Dallas is becoming a really expensive place to live.”

His response is “Casita Tristes,” or “sad little houses,’’ a guerilla art project that started with brightly colored miniature piñata houses that started popping up near construction sites in Oak Cliff.

“I wanted to create an object that people can make a positive association with, but the anthropomorphized facial expressions showed concern and looked worrisome,” he said.

After creating more than 25 colorful, festive structures, Valderas placed them near homes set to be demolished.

“It was such an interesting concept to see this small, little object against this Goliath of an object,’’ he said.

Valderas intended to provoke dialogue in the neighborhood, and the project quickly attracted a strong following on social media. KERA aired a report and newspaper and TV reporters started calling.

They followed with their own stories about the lack of affordable housing for working-class families.

Giovanni Valderas
Giovanni Valderas

Students peppered Valderas with questions about the reaction his work produced.

“Being able to communicate with the media and being able to create a message that wasn’t direct and abrasive yet still had the same effect was the hardest part of the process,” he said.

He said he wanted to easily engage the audience about gentrification.

“Nobody wants to come home after a long day of work or taking care of the kids to sit down and watch the news filled with negative imagery,” he said, adding, “this doesn’t absolve you from your duty to care for your community.”

He wanted the message to include a call to action, so he cut holes into the back of the houses where he stacked postcards about how to get involved.

Valderas partnered with the Texas Tenants’ Union, which provides data about what happens to families displaced by gentrification. He says he plans to continue to create bright, whimsical piñatas and hopes they inspire residents to become advocates.

“Art can be intimidating, but it’s important to take control of your narrative and take the time to listen to what people are saying,” he said. “There just isn’t enough listening in the world anymore.”